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Pine Gulch Fire and Largest Wildfires in Colorado History

Firefighters mopping up hot spots at the Pine Gulch fire earlier this week.EXPAND
Firefighters mopping up hot spots at the Pine Gulch fire earlier this week.

The Pine Gulch fire, located approximately eighteen miles north of Grand Junction in parts of Mesa and Garfield counties, is now officially the largest wildfire in Colorado history, having consumed more than 139,000 acres by the most recent estimate. And its enormous scope offers a cautionary tale.

The list of Colorado's most destructive wildfires is made up entirely of conflagrations from the 21st century — a fact that parallels warnings shared with us by Michael Kodas, the Colorado-based author of the prescient and authoritative book Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame, in our 2018 post "Why Wildfires in Colorado Have Been So Bad and Are Likely to Get Worse." Kodas noted shortsighted forest management, over-development, climate change and the intersection of economics and politics as the main factors for why blazes here and elsewhere in the United States grow so large, last so long and do so much damage.

Fortunately, the Pine Gulch fire hasn't resulted in any loss of life to date — and indeed, Colorado's deadliest blazes have generally been fairly modest in terms of size. The Camp Carson/Cheyenne Mountain fire near Fort Carson in 1950, which killed nine people, including a fourteen-year-old volunteer, is calculated to have stretched across as many as 28,800 acres — less than a quarter as many as the Pine Gulch fire has burned.

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Moreover, three other Colorado fires that cost multiple lives were much smaller than that. The 1976 Battlement Creek fire near Parachute, in which three firefighters and a pilot died, was measured at just 880 acres. The 1994 South Canyon fire near Glenwood Springs, better known as the "Storm King" fire, killed fourteen firefighters but destroyed just 2,115 acres. And the 2012 Lower North Fork fire outside Foxton, which killed three people, topped out at 3,217 acres.

In terms of acreage, here are Colorado's current top ten:

1. Pine Gulch fire, 2020: 139,006 acres to date
2. Hayman fire, 2002: 137,760 acres
3. West Fork Complex fire, 2013: 110,405 acres
4. Spring Creek fire, 2018: 108,045 acres
5. High Park fire, 2012: 87,284 acres
6. Missionary Ridge fire, 2002: 71,739 acres
7. 416 fire, 2018: 54,129 acres
8. Bridger fire, 2008: 46,612 acres
9. Last Chance fire, 2012: 44,000 acres
10. Mile Marker 117 fire, 2018: 42,795 acres

The latest InciWeb report about the Pine Gulch fire suggests that its growth has nearly ended — but that doesn't mean the danger is over. The blaze, which started at approximately 5:15 p.m. on July 31, is estimated to be 77 percent contained thanks to hard work by an enormous contingent of firefighters — 915 at present.

Right now, containment lines on the fire are holding, but widespread thunderstorms predicted through 2 p.m. today, August 28, are expected to produce wind gusts of up to 25 miles per hour, "which can affect fire behavior," the update acknowledges. Click for the latest information about evacuations and road closures.

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